Local Economy Remains in High Gear

Local economist Ed Whitelaw and two of his cohorts at ECONorthwest (Philip Taylor and Bryce Ward) have unearthed an amazing and important statistic about Lane County’s economic landscape. In an essay published in last Sunday’s Commentary section, they showed Eugene-Springfield professional workers work fewer hours than their colleagues in almost any other metropolitan area nationwide.

Historical records show that this trend has been constant for more than a generation. When coupled with our lower average wage, that group’s wealth lags far behind most other metropolitan markets.

Whitelaw is an economist, not an anthropologist. I am neither, so I can pretend to be both and offer a possible explanation.

Normal becomes whatever we all agree is normal.

For example, my neighbor Bob recently was complaining at a neighborhood gathering about his morning commute from south Eugene to downtown. Traffic is an easy topic for commiseration, but Bob wasn’t getting much traction. While he spun his conversational wheels, I counted noses. There were 17 of us seated on assorted lawn chairs that Sunday evening. “Bob?” I asked, “Do you realize you’re the only one here who reports to a boss in an office every day?”

We all laughed as others checked my work. Three consultants, six self-employed, four students, one telecommuter, two semi-retired, and Bob. My neighborhood is not a scientific sample, but that’s not my point.

For a while, none of us noticed that Bob’s 9-to-5 is not our commonality. More importantly, when we did notice, nothing seemed wrong — except possibly to Bob.

University of Oregon professors have long understood they earn less than their colleagues at other universities. The gap has been sardonically embraced with the phrase, “We get paid in scenery.” Along with trees and mountains and plenty of water, that scenery includes self-employed, underemployed, and just-barely-employed — without shame.

In most other places I’ve lived, anyone not working 40 hours a week had either a secret disability or a disabling secret. If your work week wasn’t like Bob’s, you weren’t normal. Eugene has accepted work as necessary but not central to its identity.

Most Americans live to work. Eugeneans work to live.

Eugene’s lifestyle can evoke a culture shock. University of Oregon Journalism Professor Ed Madison came here from a large city. He once remarked to me, “People here sure love their scarcity.”

Put another way, people here have been getting by for so long, it’s all they know. We make and do less, so we make do more.

Let’s return to some economic numbers. National economists have marveled that housing starts are up 27.7 percent this year, and yet construction jobs are up only 2.9 percent. They attribute this to what’s called “labor hoarding.” Rather than lose good workers during slow periods, employers keep them on the payroll, often with reduced hours, even if there isn’t enough work to keep them busy.

Labor hoarding has become part of our way of life. Employers keep more workers than they need. Workers accept fewer hours than they’d like. It’s a vital part of our scenery.

I’ve asked people about this for years. Some businessmen tell me the Vietnam War protests of the 1970s convinced local economic leaders to keep a low profile. “Students took over the city’s culture,” one business titan told me, “and they never gave it back.”

Assigning causality to a culture is risky business, because there’s never a single force that produces such a constellation of consequences. But let me suggest one anyway.

Whitelaw’s essay mentioned the debilitating effect of alcohol, but I’m interested in another inebriant. Marijuana.

It’s not much debated whether people mellow under the chemical influence of THC. And it’s certainly not debatable that its use is more accepted here than in most other places. What happens next is what intrigues me.

Once it takes root, our altered state of normal continues without its original cause. We aren’t all high when we smile at strangers, invite a person with two items in the grocery line to move ahead of us, or pass a resolution when the board chairperson asks, “Everybody cool?” It’s just normal.

And normal looks like a contact high.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.